Pac-12 football kicks off this week

By the Pac-12 Conference

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KICK IT OFF: The Pac-12 kicks off its 97th season with an unprecedented four Thursday games, which coincides with the first football games aired on the Pac-12 Networks, featuring Northern Colorado at UTAH and Northern Arizona at ARIZONA STATE. Of the 12 games played during the opening weekend six will appear on the Pac-12 Networks. In fact, the Pac-12 Networks will air 17 games over the first four weeks of the season, including broadcasts from each of the league's 12 campuses.

THE POLLS: For the first time in league history, two Pac-12 teams appear among the Top 5 in the AP preseason poll - No. 1 USC and No. 5 OREGON. In the Coaches poll, the Trojans are at No. 3, while the Ducks hold down the No. 5 spot. STANFORD comes in at No. 21 in the AP, No. 18 in the Coaches. Both WASHINGTON and UTAH received votes in both polls.

NON-LEAGUE SLATE: The Pac-12's non-conference schedule of 36 games includes matchups with 11 opponents who are ranked or received votes in the preseason AP and/or USA Today polls. Keep an eye on week two as the schedule features four games against teams ranked among the Top 20.

FOUR NEW COACHES: The desert landscape is changing as new coaches appear this season in Tucson and Tempe as Rich Rodriguez will guide Arizona and Todd Graham will take over at Arizona State. The Pac-12 South Division gets another new face with the appointment of Jim Mora at UCLA. Mike Leach takes over at Washington State. It's not the first time four new coaches debuted in the same season. Four new coaches made their Pac-10 debut in 2003 - Mike Riley (Oregon State), Karl Dorrell (UCLA), Keith Gilbertson (Washington) and Bill Doba (Washington State), while four new coaches appeared on Pac-8 sidelines in 1976 - Craig Fertiig (Oregon State), Terry Donahue (UCLA), John Robinson (USC) and Jackie Sherrill (Washington State).

SIGNAL-CALLERS: While the Pac-12 had three QBs selected in the 2012 NFL draft, the league still boasts several experienced standout quarterbacks in USC senior Matt Barkley (36 starts), UTAH junior Jordan Wynn (19), WASHINGTON STATE senior Jeff Tuel (19), CALIFORNIA senior Zach Maynard (13), WASHINGTON junior Keith Price (13), and OREGON STATE sophomore Sean Mannion (10). There are six quarterbacks who will lineup behind center with five or fewer starts with their current school. Those six include ARIZONA senior Matt Scott (5) and first-year starters ARIZONA STATE sophomore Taylor Kelly, COLORADO junior Jordan Webb (although he was a two-year starter at Kansas before transferring to Colorado), OREGON freshman Marcus Mariota, STANFORD junior Josh Nunes and UCLA freshman Brett Hundley . . . Barkley set school and Pac-12 records as he tossed for 3,528 yards (294.0 per game) and a Pac-12 record 39 TDs. Mannion threw for 3,328 yards (277.3 per game), Price threw for 3,063 yards (235.6 per game) and a UW record 33 TDs, Maynard tossed for 2,990 yards (230.0 per game). Wynn and Tuel are coming off a season marked by injuries, but are expected to return to their 2010 form when they passed for 2,334 yards/17 TDs and 2,780 yards/18 TDs respectively.

OTHER HEADLINERS: A total of nine first-team and 16 second-team All-Pac-12 performers return. The Pac-12 is loaded with quality receivers as both first-team and second-team selections return - California junior Keenan Allen (1,343 yards) and USC junior Robert Woods (1,292 yards) were both first-team picks, while USC sophomore Marqise Lee (1,143 yards) and Washington State junior Marquess Wilson (1,388 yards) were second-team selections . . . The Pac-12 features five returning 1,000-yard rushers. Utah's John White, who set a Ute single-season record with 1,519 yards, Stanford's Stepfan Taylor (1,330 yards), California's Isi Sofele (1,320 yards), Arizona State's Cameron Marshall (1,050), and USC's Curtis McNeal (1,005 yards). Two others were within 70 yards of the 1,000-yard mark - UCLA's Johnathan Franklin (976 yards) and Oregon's Kenjon Barner (939 yards) . . . On the defensive side, Utah's Star Lotulelei and Oregon's Dion Jordan are among the nation's best along the front line. . . Pac-12 is teaming with quality in the secondary. USC's T.J. McDonald and Nickell Robey were first-team All-Pac-12 selections, while Oregon's John Boyett and Oregon State's Jordan Poyer were second-team selections. . . Other notable returners include the special team performers Oregon's De'Anthony Thomas and Arizona State's Jamal Miles as kick returners. Each returned a pair of kickoffs for touchdowns last season.

DID YOU KNOW...: Among Pac-12 teams, USC currently has the longest winning streak at 4 games. UCLA currently has the longest home winning streak, also at 4 games . . . Longest winning streaks currently in non-conference play belong to Utah and USC at 4 games each . . . Four Pac-12 schools - California, Oregon State, USC and Utah, return their leading passer, rusher and receiver from 2011.

ARIZONA: Senior QB Matt Scott has appeared in 22 previous contests, including five starts, so is no stranger to taking snaps. He's completed 114 of 176 pass attempts (63.8 percent) for 1,301 yards and six TDs. Isn't shy on tucking and running as he's tallied 510 yards on 99 carries (6.5 ypc) . . . UA secondary is led by junior CB Shaquille Richardson, who tied for the Pac-12 lead with four interceptions in 2011. His 0.4 interceptions per game represented the highest average in the conference . . . Head coach Rich Rodriguez makes his debut with the Wildcats as the 30th head football coach in the school's history. He's won six of his last seven season-openers.

ARIZONA STATE: Senior RB Cameron Marshall rushed for 1,050 yards and 18 touchdowns in 2011. His 18 rushing touchdowns tied for the Conference lead in 2011 and matched ASU's single-season mark for rushing touchdowns . . . The Sun Devils return 9 starters from a defensive unit that tied for second in the Pac-12 in turnover margin (+9) . . . Head coach Todd Graham makes his Sun Devil debut as the 23rd head coach in school history. For the third time in the last 60 years, both Arizona and Arizona State have new head coaches in the same season. The other two seasons were 1980 with Larry Smith (Arizona)/Darryl Rogers (Arizona State) and 2001 with John Mackovic (Arizona)/Dirk Koetter (Arizona State).

CALIFORNIA: The Bears return their two leading rushers from 2011, including senior Isi Sofele, who amassed 1,322 yards on the ground. Cal running back tandems have rushed for 1,500 yards or more in each of the past nine seasons . . . Junior WR Keenan Allen was a first-team All-Pac-12 selection after hauling in 98 passes for 1,343 yards in 2011 . . . Cal has led the Pac-12 in total defense in each of the last two seasons. It's pass defense has been particularly staunch, allowing a league-low 195.24 yards per game during that span. Additionally, the Bears' defense averaged 7.62 tackles for loss per game in 2011, leading the Pac-12 and ranking seventh nationally.

COLORADO: Four starters return to Colorado's offensive line in 2012, including second team All-Pac-12 selection T David Bakhtiari . . . Junior QB Jordan Webb will start under center for the Buffs in 2011, bringing two years of starting experience to an otherwise young offensive unit. Webb started 19 games in two seasons at Kansas, totaling 3,079 passing yards and 20 touchdowns . . . Returns its three leading tacklers from 2011, led by senior S Ray Polk (69 total tackles) . . . 15 of 23 true freshman hold positions on Colorado's initial depth chart with three slated to start outright or share first-team duties.

OREGON: The Ducks have tabbed freshman Marcus Mariota as their starting quarterback, becoming the school's first freshman to start Oregon's season opener since redshirt freshman Danny O'Neil did so in 1991 against Washington State . . . Oregon, which owns a conference-best 25-2 record against Pac-12 teams since 2009, has won three-straight conference titles. The Ducks have compiled a 34-6 record during the three-year tenure of head coach Chip Kelly . . . In Kelly's fast-paced offensive system, Oregon led the Pac-12 and ranked fourth nationally with 88 scrimmage plays of 20-yards or longer last season . . . The Ducks' defense led the conference with 45 sacks (tied for third nationally) and 91 passes defended (second nationally) in 2011.

OREGON STATE: Sophomore QB Sean Mannion is the second-tallest quarterback in OSU history (6-5), and his 3,328 yards passing in 2011 ranked fourth in the Pac-12 (second behind USC's Matt Barkley among returning players) . . . The Beaver receiving corps includes talented senior SE Markus Wheaton, who was Mannion's primary target last season with 73 receptions for 986 yards (13.5 ypc) . . . The Beavers boasted the second-best pass defense in the Pac-12 in 2011, allowing just 214.4 yards per game through the air. They also ranked second in the Pac-12 with 5 blocked punts/kicks last season.

STANFORD: Stanford will start the 2012 campaign ranked in the AP Poll for the 30th-consecutive week, dating back to Sept. 5, 2010. The streak marks the school's longest continuous ranking in the poll since the 1969-72 seasons (43 weeks) . . . Head coach David Shaw became just the ninth major college head coach in history to post 11 or more wins in his first season. He was named the Pac-12's Coach of the Year, becoming just the third head coach in Stanford history to earn the award, following Bill Walsh (1977) and Tyrone Willingham (1995 and '99) . . . After posting 1,330 rushing yards, senior RB Stepfan Taylor became just the third Stanford back in history to register back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons. With 2,770 career rushing yards, he needs 230 yards to become the third back in school history to reach 3,000 yards, joining Darrin Nelson (4,033) and Toby Gerhart (3,522)

UCLA: Jim Mora enters his first season at UCLA as a first-time college head coach, though he brings four years of NFL head coaching experience (three years with the Atlanta Falcons and one year with the Seattle Seahawks). In Mora's first recruiting cycle, which was abbreviated by his December hiring, UCLA hauled in one of the top classes in the country . . . 16 starters return for the Bruins, including leading rusher senior Johnathan Franklin (976 yards/5.9 ypc) and highly-touted senior TE Joseph Fauria (481 yards/12.3 ypc) . . . Senior P Jeff Locke's 44.58 career punting average is the highest in school history.

USC: The Trojans sit atop the AP preseason poll for the seventh time in school history, returning 19 starters from a 2011 squad that won seven of its final eight games. Among the returning starters are nine All-Pac-12 performers, including a 3,500-yard passer, two 1,000-yard receivers and a 1,000 yard rusher. The Trojans added a second 1,000-yard rusher in transfer Silas Redd, whole racked up 1,241 yards on the ground with Penn State in 2011 . . . Eight defensive starters return to a unit that ranked second in the Pac-12 in rushing defense in 2011, including 2011 All-Pac-12 honorees senior S T.J. McDonald, senior DE Wes Horton and sophomore LB Dion Bailey.

UTAH: At 25 years of age, Utah's Brian Johnson is the youngest offensive coordinator in the FBS. Johnson, a former Utah quarterback, was the MVP of the 2009 Sugar Bowl in a win over Alabama . . Senior RB John White rushed for a school-record 1,519 yards in 2011 to rank second in the Pac-12 and ninth in the nation. The 2012 Heisman hopeful will again be the feature back in an offense that took to the ground on 58.6 percent of its plays a season ago . . . Utah returns nine starters, including 2011 All-Pac-12 performer senior NT Star Lotulelei. The Utes led the Pac-12 in several defensive categories in 2011, including scoring defense (20.2 ppg) and red zone defense (75.68%).

WASHINGTON: Head coach Steve Sarkisian owns a 38-19 record in three seasons at Washington and has led his team to bowl games in each of the last two seasons . . . Junior QB Keith Price ranked third among returning Pac-12 quarterbacks with 235.6 passing yards per game in 2011. Price threw for 3,063 yards and a school record 33 TDs last season . . . Junior S Sean Parker was the sixth-leading tackler in the Pac-12 in 2011 with 91 total tackles and was the only underclassman to rank in the top-10.

WASHINGTON STATE: Mike Leach enters his first season as Washington State's head coach. Leach compiled an impressive 84-43 record in nine-plus seasons at Texas Tech . . . The Courgars boasted the second-most prolific passing attack in the Pac-12, averaging 322.3 yards through the air in 2011 . . . Junior WR Marquess Wilson, a second team All Pac-12 selection last season, led the Pac-12 with 115.7 yards receiving, and his 12 touchdown receptions were good for second in the Conference . . . Senior QB Jeff Tuel returns to the field for the Cougars this fall after injuries kept him out of nine games in 2011. Tuel started all 12 games for WSU as a sophomore in 2010, throwing for 2,780 yards, posting 10 200-yard passing games.

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